Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Opera review: Sarasota's 'Giovanna' revealed Verdi gem

Cristina Castaldi as Giovanna and Rafael Dávila as Carlo
(Charles VII) in Giovanna d’Arco.
(Photo by Rod Millington)



By Rex Hearn

The Sarasota Opera likes to say that no other company in the world will have completed a Verdi cycle – a complete survey of all the composer’s stage works -- when it comes to an end in 2013 on the 200th anniversary of Verdi’s birth.

The company’s just-finished production of Giovanna d’Arco (Joan of Arc) was the 29th opera in the cycle, and its boast of exclusivity is a strong one: Victor DeRenzi, the company’s artistic director, even produces all of Verdi’s revised versions, in Italian and French.

This Verdi cycle has been the anchor for this very successful, 51-year-old opera company. Each season offers four works in the winter, during the months of February and March. Two years ago, it ventured into fall, adding a fifth opera.

Fall attendance at the 2009 La Traviata was a series of full houses, and a 30 percent growth in new audiences. But like other nonprofits, Sarasota Opera has felt the pinch of the economic downturn. Its annual budget has been reduced to $7.7 million, down $500,000 from last year.

Also last year, 64 “Star” donors (those who gave $5,000) died. Replacing them in these hard times will be a Herculean task.
***

Despite all that, this production of Giovanna d’Arco was wonderful. The costumes were exquisite, the singing excellent and the scenery magnificent. Lighting and orchestral playing rounded out all the arts involved and they were superb.

Faced with an opera that has had only five American productions in the last 35 years, DeRenzi made this one so appealing that it would not surprise me if there is a wave of opera companies scheduling this Verdi gem. It needs only three leads, an active chorus and lasts 2 hours and 50 minutes.

But here’s the rub: Where today does one find Verdi tenors and sopranos who can sustain the intensity of the master’s difficult writing? Joan herself has a bitch of an opening aria that makes Mozart’s tour de force for the Queen of the Night look like a cinch. Verdi, skilled as he was, avoids having all three soloists on stage all the time, interspersing their entrances with battlefield scenes of soldiers, English and French. Or lovers in sylvan settings: Joan falls in love with the Dauphin, whom she later crowns King Charles VII. The tenor and baritone work hard when they are on stage, and Verdi gives them great melodies to work with.

Giovanna, which premiered in 1845, is based on Schiller’s Jungfrau von Orleans, which Temistocle Solera reworked into a tight libretto of six scenes in four acts. This version has Joan dying on the battlefield, not burned at the stake. There is no Inquisition in this opera, who in Shaw’s play (Saint Joan) try her for heresy and craftily hand her over to the English, thus avoiding eternal damnation.

Pageantry lends itself to opera and there’s a lot of it in Giovanna d’Arco, including processions of nobles, cardinals, bishops and knights, plus peasants waving flags and five pretty flower girls, a nice directorial touch. There is plenty of good work for chorus and supernumeraries, too. (I spotted some opera donors in the procession to Charles VII’s coronation – and why not?)

Joan was sung by American soprano Cristina Castaldi. Her lovely voice isn’t quite heavy enough (yet) for this difficult role, but toward the end, in softer passages, she was in full control and sounded superb. Her acting was in character as she wrestled with holy visions and demonic voices. It was an excellent portrayal, courageously sung.

Puerto Rican tenor Rafael Dávila as the Dauphin, later King Charles, is the perfect Verdi tenor. He has a plum rich sound with a wide-open delivery that gives him so much ease in reaching Verdi’s high notes. He was sweeter in the softer passages, as he and Joan fall in love, and the chemistry between the singers was nicely evident. Dávila was believable, and acted the part of royalty convincingly.

Giacomo, Joan’s father, a shepherd, was magnificently sung by Marco Nistico. His rolling rich baritone was a delight for the ear, and he sang with clear Italian diction. This is a difficult role because the Schiller play has him delivering his daughter to the English, thinking she has dishonored the family in a love affair with the king. Later, he frees her from her English captors and laments her death in battle.

Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, an English general, was sung by bass-baritone Benjamin Gelfand. I could have listened to more of his fine voice; it is not a major role, however. Heath Huberg was Delil, an official of the king. As a Studio Artist he sang well and carried himself with dignity, in and out of uniform.

Martha Collins’ stage direction was brilliant. Her crowds moved easily on Sarasota’s restricted stage. In choruses she had members move forward in threes to emphasize Verdi’s music on the downbeat, which was most effective. Movement was continual in what could so easily have been a static presentation (the fault, I might add, of Ricardo Chailly’s Bologna Opera production of some years ago).

Jeffrey Dean designed some lovely sets; the Rheims Cathedral was to scale and sensational in its reality. He subtly places a stake, with kindling, stage left, to let us know that’s how Joan really died. Howard Kaplan’s costumes were beautiful -- for the record, Joan’s armor, given to her by the king, was white.

Lighting by Ken Yunker was splendid. Georgianna Eberhard’s wigs and make up were just right. Roger Bingaman had his choristers trained to perfection, and they carried a large part of the opera with good work.

Of course, what stands out in this clever production is Verdi’s music: The long dramatic overture, so familiar to brass band enthusiasts. The orchestral writing, in which every section has an opportunity to shine in the fullness of its detail and scoring.

The orchestra, under DeRenzi, played beautifully and with heart.

One quibble: Early on, the supertitle translation refers to “the English soldiers.” At the end of the opera they become “the British.” At the time the Maid of Orleans was giving the English Plantagenets the business (1429), Scotland was independent, Wales and Ireland were subject nations and the East India Company was 300 years away from setting up what became the British Empire. So, “English” it is, and should remain.

***

Die Zauberflöte
(The Magic Flute), Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, and Hansel and Gretel (in English) were also given the weekend I stayed in Sarasota. I didn’t make it to Hansel, but here are brief reviews of the other operas:
Lindsay Ohse as the Queen of the Night
and Maria d’Amato as Pamina, in Die Zauberflöte.
(Photo by Rod Millington)


In a small, 1,100-seat, former vaudeville house, Sarasota Opera’s production of Mozart’s last opera, The Magic Flute, had all the authenticity of how Emanuel Schikaneder might have staged it. He commissioned Mozart to write this singspiel (play with music) in 1791, and the composer died 10 weeks after its premiere at age 35.

Stage director Alison Grant made it a lively and gripping experience. I dare to say it was near perfection, the best of many Flutes I’ve seen.

The opera is filled with Masonic philosophy and ritual because Mozart and Schikaneder belonged to the same Masonic lodge. They present only the basic tenets, however, which must have fascinated Austrian audiences back then, since they thought they were being let in on Masonry’s secret inner workings. (They were not). But what a come-on.

Heading an enormous cast was the Korean bass Young-Bok Kim as Sarastro, whose golden, refined voice and commanding presence riveted the attention. Prince Tamino, sung by tenor Joshua Kohl, had a few vocal problems early on, acted well and managed to get through to the end.

Pamina, his love interest, sung by Maria D’Amato, has a beautiful, sweet-sounding soprano. Soprano Lindsay Ohse as the Queen of the Night offered a dazzling, crystal-clear voice. Baritone Sean Anderson as Papageno was an absolute delight, a fine singing actor whose dulcet tones were very distinctive.

The Three Ladies were excellent: Alda Lynn Hamza, Sarah Asmar and Alissa Anderson. The Three Sprites sounded like boy choristers, which was fine because Mozart scored their songs for boys’ voices, but here they were beautifully sung by girls: Amanda Capps, Mary Akemon and Maria Elena Arrate. They moved well and were easy on the eye.

John Tsotsoros caught the tongue-in-cheek character of his role of his role as the bad guy, Monastatos, singing his part with gusto and a grin.

Soprano Katherine Werbiansky, in the dual role of Old Woman and Papagena, was a perfect match for Papageno and sang very well. This is the fifth production of Flute by this company. It is such a delight in every way I think it deserves a wider audience. HD-TV, anyone?

***

Evan Brummel as Silvio and Aundi Marie Moore as Nedda in Pagliacci.
(Photo by Rod Millington)



Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, two verismo operas from the 1890s by Mascagni and Leoncavallo, respectively, were directed by Stephanie Sundine. She kept the productions in traditional focus and created clever crowd movements on stage.

In Cavalleria, Kara Shay Thomson’s strong dramatic soprano as Santuzza was ideally suited to this role. Argentinean tenor Gustavo Lopez Manzitti was vibrant as Turridu but his small red beret, perched precariously on his head, made him look ridiculous and distracted from his fine singing.

Lola was beautifully sung by soprano Stephanie Luaricella. Alfio was the excellent baritone Michael Corvino.

Mark Bingaman’s chorus was superb all through the opera. Most effective was the use of a double chorus in the Easter Hymn: some back stage in the church and some front stage in the town square or piazza. It’s a musical nod to those early polyphonists, Monteverdi and Gabrieli, who invented this early stereo effect at St. Mark’s in Venice.

In Pagliacci, Manzitti sang Canio and Corvino was Tonio. The prologue, which Corvino sang in front of the curtain, was a little masterpiece. Nedda, sung by the young soprano Aundi Marie Moore, sent thrills around the audience with her stunning vocalizations: what a lovely voice!

Studio Artist Heath Huberg gave his role of Peppe a good reading and looked great in his Harlequin outfit. Evan Brummel’s Silvio was believable. Sundine managed to have 40-plus people appear from nowhere and disappear just as quickly on the cramped Sarasota stage. No mean feat.

The set was not in the right proportion to the people on stage, however. They, and even the statues of the saints, seemed huge in comparison to the buildings. Musically , it was a very fine performance.

***

In 51 seasons of professional opera, Sarasota Opera has risen to the top. It is a well-managed company with everything running precisely, with an army of helpful, neatly uniformed volunteers.

Already it has announced next season’s operas: Rossini’s La Cenerentola in October-November, and for the winter, Puccini’s La Bohème, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Verdi’s I Lombardi (the cycle opera), and Robert Ward’s The Crucible.

If you like your opera in big doses, there are two weekends in which you may catch all four on a Friday night, Saturday matinee and evening, and Sunday matinee. If you can drive 50 miles or so to hear your local opera company, it’s worth it to go the extra mile to hear Sarasota Opera.

The quality is first-rate and you’ll hear top-notch international singers mixed in with promising youngsters on the cusp of greatness. It’s worth the trip.

Rex Hearn, founder of the Berkshire Opera Company, has been writing about opera in South Florida since 1995.

Sarasota Opera can be reached at 941-366-8450, or by visiting www.sarasotaopera.org.

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